Big Pharma’s Neutering of the DEA Highlights Corruption of US Capitalist and Political System

by m2c4 –

The pharmaceutical industry apparently just won’t stop in its efforts to expand the opioid crisis in order to line its own pockets with profits. A report from the Washington Post shows how, even at the height of the opioid epidemic in 2014, the industry basically bribed 23 members of Congress with over $1.5 million in campaign donations and spent over $100 million lobbying Congress in order to keep the DEA from interfering in its suspicious sales of hundreds of millions of opioid pills which netted pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars.

A law, eventually passed in 2016 but effectively enforced by DEA lawyers starting in 2014, changed the level evidence that the DEA needed to intercept suspiciously large shipments of opioids to highly suspect pharmacies and doctors. The legal wording changed the existing law from requiring the DEA from merely determining “imminent danger” based on the “preponderance of evidence” to a higher and nearly impossible standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That change effectively shut down DEA’s efforts to staunch the flow of illegally distributed or prescribed opioids.

As usual, the oligopoly cartel of the big three drug distributors, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen Drug Company was behind this effort. But they also had help from their co-conspirators in creating the opioid crisis, the oligopoly cartel of big pharmacies, Walgreen’s, CVS, and Walmart who also helped promote this effort.

For these companies, the DEA’s intervention was a continuing problem. McKesson paid an over $13 million fine for shipments to internet pharmacies in 2007. Cardinal Health was fined $34 million for ignoring “blatantly suspicious” orders. Cardinal was again investigated in 2011 for sending millions of opioid pills to a handful of pharmacies in Florida. Walgreen’s was alleged to have allowed some if its pharmacies in Florida to sell millions of pills a year, compared to the average of around 75,000 for a typical pharmacy.

According to the Post, as the opioid epidemic really took in the mid-2000s, “Hundreds of millions of pain pills, such as Vicodin and Oxycodone, ended up in the hands of dealers and illegal users. Rogue doctors wrote fraudulent prescriptions for enormous numbers of pills, and complicit pharmacists filled them without question, often for cash. Internet pharmacies, supplied by drug distribution companies, allowed users to obtain drugs without seeing a doctor.” Between 2006 and 2016, the DEA brought 17 cases against the above-mentioned major drug distributors and assessed fines of close to $425 million in an effort to crack down on this abuse.

But these fines were just part of the “cost of doing business” as one DEA investigator described. Another vented his frustration by saying, “There were just too many bad practitioners, too many bad pharmacies, and too many bad wholesalers and distributors…These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.”

But even paying this cost of doing business for clearly illegal behavior was too much for these cartels to handle. And that’s when these companies banded together to gut the enforcement power of the DEA when it came to cracking down on these supposed “legal” purveyors of addictive drugs and their constant flow of outrageously large shipments to suspect distributors. All it took was an intense lobbying effort and paying off a few members of Congress in order to get the DEA off their back.

Besides being a story about the complicity of some of the largest American corporations in the creation of the opioid epidemic, this story is also illustrative of the profound corruption of our political class. Those charged with making decisions in the DEA eventually left the agency to cash in and advise these pharmaceutical companies in how to attack the policies of the very agency that they previously served, a classic case of the corruption of the revolving door. It is a story of regulatory capture. As on DEA agent said, “This is an industry that’s out of control. If they don’t follow the law in drug supply, and diversion occurs, people die. That’s just it, people die. And what they’re saying is, ‘The heck with your compliance. We’ll just get the law changed.’” And they did.

The story also illustrates the corruption and legislative dysfunction in our government. It apparently only took $1.5 million to get 23 members of Congress to back this bill. Even worse, it is apparent that no one other than perhaps a handful of bought-off Congressmen and the companies paying them really understood that the change in the law would effectively neuter the DEA from restraining these pharmaceutical companies from continuing to feed shady doctors and pharmacies with millions of pills and increasing the opioid epidemic. And, to top it off, the lead legislator on this effort has been nominated to be Trump’s drug czar.

I’ll also just add one more depressing thought. The opioid epidemic is now morphing into a heroin and fentanyl epidemic as states and other localities begin to crack down on the over-prescription of opioids. As such, it will give Jeff Sessions yet another excuse to renew the war on drugs more generally, crack down on minority communities, and throw even more low-level drug offenders in jail. Meanwhile, the biggest dealers in this epidemic will be sitting in their boardrooms and offices counting their money.

Please read the entire Post article for the whole sad, sordid story. This one story almost perfectly encapsulates the deep corruption of the American capitalist and political system.


Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos